Raj Malik remembers the evening of August 17, 2016 quite well. The morning was uneventful – he’d dropped his daughter Sonam off for wrestling practice on his way to work at a sugar mill in Gohana, in the Sonipat district of Haryana, and then picked her up on the way back home. Nothing unusual so far, until he reached home.
A news channel was turned on, and the images and fliers running at the bottom of the screen announced that Sakshi Malik had become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in wrestling. Raj remembers watching the news for quite a while along with his 14-year-old daughter. The youngster watched, wide-eyed, breaking her norm of watching television for not more than a few half-hearted minutes. Once the news segment was over, she watched videos of Sakshi receiving the bronze medal.
“Chhoti si thi jab Sakshi medal jeeti,” recalls Raj, who in his youth had tried but failed to forge a wrestling career for himself. “We were watching the videos over and over again when I told her, ‘ab aap aise karoge?’ She just smiled and continued watching.”
It was a casual challenge from Malik senior, but it turned out to be one Sonam was destined to strive for. She took another step forward when she beat Sakshi, for the second time in as many months, in the trials to earn a spot at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers. Reaching the finals there will earn her a berth at the Tokyo Olympics – that too just a few months after she started competing in the senior category.
But Sonam’s second win over Sakshi, in the domestic qualifiers, came in a most dramatic fashion. The 27-year-old Olympic medallist led for the majority of the match. But in the dying seconds, Sonam, a few months short of her 18th birthday, pulled off the ‘Dhak’ routine – a match-winning move that requires a wrestler to pull the opponent over the shoulder and throw her onto the mat. It’s a risky but crowd-pleasing move, with a low success rate. But Sonam pulled it off when it mattered.
“She’s always been mentally strong and calm. She knows when to make which move and how to execute them. She needed points quickly, so she got herself into a good position for this move,” says her coach Ajmer Malik. “She’s practised it many times during training. So it wasn’t new to her. It was just a matter of timing.”
There were no nerves in the younger grappler as she took on and beat, twice, a wrestler as celebrated as Sakshi.
“Sher ke saamne kushti ladne jaaye to dar to lagta hai,” says Ajmer. “But we’ve worked a lot on her mental strength. Ab sher ki takkar sher se hi hogi.”
The mental toughness is one part of the equation, and Sonam also has a great degree of self-belief. And it’s something she had exhibited back in 2018, when she ‘pestered’ her father to take her to New Delhi for her first Bharat Kesari Dangal.
Raj had to spend some time convincing the organisers to let his “chhoti si bachchi” compete, till they relented. In her first match, she faced a novice and won with ease. In her next bout, the 60 kg wrestler had to fight an opponent in the 80 kg category.
“I told her enough is enough, but she was adamant. She said she’d seen the girl during the national camps and that she could be beaten easily. Sonam refused to withdraw,” Raj says. “So she played, and won, and then won her next few matches and ended up winning the Rs 1 lakh prize and a scooty!”
That was her first dangal. She’d go on to win the next four as well.
It all started for the teenager from Gohana when she accompanied her father to watch wrestling practice at akhadas in the city. Raj had never been able to wrestle at a higher level, a fact that had made him a subject of frequent taunting. But when Sonam told him she wanted to train, he had no objections.
“I tried my luck, it didn’t happen for me. So who am I to get in the way of a child who wants to wrestle? I didn’t’ try to live my failed dreams through her. But she’s been so self-motivated, I’ve started to dream,” he says.
Now the priority is Sonam’s fitness – she is nursing a right elbow injury, but played through it to beat Sakshi this week. After that, her Olympic dreams are only one step away. The ‘chhoti si bachchi’ has stated her intent. Twice.
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